Flirtation Cards were the Victorian Era’s answer to social media. It was a time when proper men and women did not communicate without obeying rules as rigid as their corsets. It was difficult for them to hold intelligent conversations or dare we say it – to become friends!
Today we can display our feelings through social media, written across the sky, on a billboard or even a stadium Jumbotron screen for the entire world to see. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it was for young people of the Victorian Era. But necessity is the mother of invention and Flirtation Cards were the game changer that helped men and women dance around the rules.
The Flirtation Cards featured here come from the collection of Alan Mays as presented on flickr.
Not only was it forbidden, for a single woman to go out alone at night with a gentleman, she didn’t dare address a man without a formal introduction. Even after the proper steps were taken, she could not receive the gentleman at home unless another family member was in the same room to chaperone their meeting.
If a gentleman managed to make it through the gauntlet of the front door the parlor and the obligatory chaperone, he had to keep the visit short or risk getting a bad reputation as impolite or inconsiderate.
Outside the home, there could be no physical contact before marriage and certainly no public displays of affection. On the plus side, a gentleman could offer a girl his hand if the road was uneven. That was one of the few times that touch was acceptable between a man and woman who were not engaged. (We wonder how many rocky roads were taken intentionally to skip over this rule?)
Victorian Era corsets and the practice of tightlacing were developed, in part, to keep women “pure.” Ironically, they frequently caused women to have fainting spells, balance issues and other challenges that weakened their bodies so they often needed the assistance of gentlemen just to move about.
So how did relationships ever get rolling? The ballroom was one place where flirting had an accepted protocol of behavior and a woman was allowed some liberties.
Ballroom etiquette had a secret code through fashionable accessories. Fans, gloves, shawls and parasols were used to send signals to suitors— or simply to say let’s be friends. The code could be as simple as the full or half spin of a parasol in a certain direction, the touching of a fan or pair of gloves to the right or left cheek or the twirl of a shawl across the right or left shoulder.
Were these intricate messages ever confused? We’d love to see what Lucille Ball would have done with them.
If a woman did not fancy a man who was interested in her, she could easily convey the Victorian Era thumbs down or middle finger up with a frilly parasol, a lacey fan or a pair of soft gloves.
When the dances ended and introductions were made, young Victorians began their courting games. Sure, they had the secret language of flowers to express their feelings, but somehow that was not enough.
By the 1850s, advances in the technology of printing made cards an affordable means of communication for the emerging middle class as well as the upper class. Proper gentlemen used calling cards to formally introduce themselves to new acquaintances, to call upon friends or visit relatives.
The rules of calling cards were stringent. According to Manners For Men by Mrs. Humphry “Madge” of Truth,” (the Victorian Era answer to Dear Abby/Martha Stewart)
“It is necessary for every young man to have a supply of visiting cards…The size must be exactly three inches by one and a half. The pasteboard must be pure white and glossy and the lettering must be in italic…the address must occupy the left-hand corner and the name of one’s club or clubs must follow it.”
Another type of card was used for the counter culture kind of guys and gals. This was the Flirtation Card, Escort Card or Acquaintance card.
According to The Encyclopedia of Ephemera, the acquaintance card was, “A novelty variant of the American calling card of the 1870s and 1880s,” and was
“used by the less formal male in approaches to the less formal female. Given also as an ‘escort card’ or ‘invitation card,’ the device commonly carried a brief message and a simple illustration….Flirtatious and fun, the acquaintance card brought levity to what otherwise might have seemed a more formal proposal. A common means of introduction, it was never taken too seriously.”
It’s difficult to imagine that Nellie Bly followed these strict rules of engagement of the Victorian Era. How could she interview male subjects without being “unladylike?” Would her intentions be misconstrued?
Elizabeth Bisland, on the other hand, followed the rules — or she seemed to follow them. She was humiliated to tell her guests who were coming to tea on the day of her departure for her race around the world against Nellie Bly that she must cancel their visit. Such behavior could destroy her reputation in polite society!
That said, Elizabeth Island rolled up her lace sleeves, hopped on an experimental mail train on a westward course, and the race was on! Rules, calling cards, and social restrictions be damned!
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